Clean air is a basic human right.
In Minnesota, our air quality ranks high amongst other states. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota’s statewide air meets all federal standards and nearly all health benchmarks.
Minnesota’s statewide pollution levels have also been trending down since the 1970s due to regulation, technology, process improvements, and general increased awareness.
However, good air quality is not enjoyed equally throughout the state. Poor air quality often contributes to and worsens health disparities.
Minnesotans in some areas experience pollution levels that are high enough to worsen serious health conditions. People of color, indigenous people, and lower-income individuals are often exposed to higher amounts of outdoor air pollution.
In this edition of Ecolution, we will explore “the air we breathe” in Minnesota. We will learn about one woman’s efforts to involve the community in measuring pollution on the neighborhood level in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and hear suggestions for limiting air pollution in our daily lives.
In November Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Dr. Monika Vadali at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Dr. Vadali offers insights into Minnesota’s air quality concerns as well as the groundbreaking “Assessing Urban Air Quality” project she is leading to measure air quality in Minneapolis and St. Paul at the neighborhood level.
Jump to part two for more on that project. Read on for an overview of air quality in Minnesota.
What are our air quality concerns in Minnesota?
In Minnesota [we do] have really good air quality compared to other states.
That’s a good starting point for us, but we do still see some challenges with respect to where we have good air quality and where we don’t have good air quality. That tends to be in heavily populated areas like the metro, on a much more local scale, rather than a regional scale. We also know [of] some environmental justice areas where there are disproportionate impacts due to air pollution.
We try to do projects [at MPCA] like the one I’m working on now that address some of these issues and [determine] what the background levels are and how neighborhoods compare so we are able to answer residents when they have specific questions [about their area].
Where does Minnesota’s air pollution come from?
We have a variety of sources that contribute to pollution, especially in densely populated areas. We have traffic being an issue, we have facilities being an issue, we also have individuals contributing to it in terms of backyard fires.
A decade or so back, PM2.5 (fine particle matter) used to be a big concern for vehicle pollution but we have seen with advancements in technology and stricter rules and a more electric fleet, PM2.5 from traffic doesn’t tend to be as much of an issue. [However] it is still there and is something that has known health effects, especially for increasing cases of asthma and other upper respiratory infections.
We also have oxides of nitrogen that are contributed from traffic. In some areas we are seeing SO2 from industries. [Exposure] depends on where you are in the state.
How has COVID-19 impacted pollution levels in Minnesota?
We did not see as dramatic changes as other countries [such as] China or India. Even California has seen much more drastic change in NO2 levels and PM2.5 levels than we see here in Minnesota. I think traffic patterns seem to have changed a little bit, but nothing that really impacts us being able to say we’ve seen dramatic changes.
How much does air quality vary by neighborhood?
To what extent does where one lives impact the amount of pollution encountered? While Minnesota’s air quality is measured by a statewide monitoring network, researchers have not had sufficient data to answer these types of questions at the local level in Minnesota’s urban core.
Dr. Monika Vadali at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is working to change that. As of Spring 2019, MPCA installed at least one air quality sensor in every Minneapolis and St. Paul zip code as part of Vadali’s “Assessing Urban Air Quality” project. This is the first air sensor project in Minnesota at the neighborhood level.
Pollution data collected will be a useful metric in conjunction with other hyperlocal data, such as socioeconomic and health-related data. After the project concludes in June 2021, Vadali hopes to begin analysis on how pollution affects neighbors along socioeconomic and racial demographic lines.
As we reported last week, Minnesotans in some areas experience pollution levels that are high enough to worsen serious health conditions. People of color, Indigenous people, and lower-income individuals are often exposed to higher amounts of outdoor air pollution. In addition to other objectives, this project will provide zip code-level data that can be useful for exploring health disparities.
From the time she was attending school in India, ecology and environmental science have interested Dr. Vadali. She holds a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree in environmental sciences, and spent the first part of her career in public service, working at an NGO in close collaboration with state government.
Vadali says one of the most rewarding parts of her career has been having the independence to do projects that directly affect communities. For her “Assessing Urban Air Quality” project she has hosted town halls, met with residents, and listened to the concerns and questions of neighbors before planning the installation of sensors.
The project is ongoing. Residents can view sensor data and compare it with other zip codes. She encourages residents to be curious about how pollution affects their lives.
A transcript of her conversation with Minnesota Women’s Press:
Prioritizing Community Participation
I wanted to heavily focus the project on communities [rather] than as an agency just going in and getting data.
Right from deciding where in neighborhoods we wanted to put up monitors, that was all community input. I took a lot of time meeting individual communities, individual citizen boards, and things like that and we also had four or five open town-hall style meetings where we invited people to come in and listen to the project and give us input on where they wanted to see the monitors go up. That was quite rewarding.
We emphasized, when I went out to do meetings on location selection, that we wanted to be focused on where [people] live and not specifically focused on the facility in their neighborhoods. That really changed the way people thought about this project and got them more interested in knowing what is around their [homes].
The broad objective of the project was to get a background of what air quality is [by measuring] criteria pollutants including PM2.5 (fine particle matter, often a result of traffic), which is a big concern in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The project has air quality sensors in all the zip codes in both the cities. Some larger zip codes have multiple sensors in them, and we are measuring a whole bunch of gases as well as PM2.5 and PM10 (coarse particles).
When we go out and talk to citizens about their concerns, or if [I am] going to the community to discuss permit action or anything about a facility, then this question always comes up: how much does it [affect] our health? We don’t really have an answer, because we don’t know what the community level exposure is.
At a zip code level in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are zip codes that tend to have higher health impacts than others. That’s one of the reasons [to see] if air pollution follows similar patterns. There are definitely social and mental health effects if you are living in a highly polluted area.[Pollution] affects how much time you can spend outdoors and do those social activities. In the summers, with windows open, [air quality] also affects quality of life in your own home.
Below we have gathered resources and tools to further explore the intersection of air quality and environmental justice in Minnesota and around the U.S.
Majority of MPCA advisory group resigns in protest of agency’s Line 3 decision, MPR News, November 2020
The members of the Environmental Justice Advisory Group wrote that they are submitting their “collective and public resignation” because they “cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on Black and brown people.”
Pollution is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back, NYT, July 2020
African-Americans are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in so-called fence-line communities, defined as areas situated near facilities that produce hazardous waste.
Climate policy, environmental justice, and local air pollution, The Brookings Institution, October 2020
In the context of federal policy, we believe there are several potential avenues to address systemic pollution exposure burdens in marginalized communities.
The state says pollution contributes to thousands of deaths each year in Minnesota. The hard part: what to do about it, Minnpost, July 2019
Roxxanne O’Brien moved to northeast Minneapolis in 1987. “One of the first things I can remember when I got here was smelling poison in the air,” she said recently.
Air pollution implicated in up to 4,000 Minnesota deaths a year, Star Tribune, June 2019
Air pollution, once considered primarily an urban problem, now afflicts the entire state.
Mapping Pollution in Minneapolis, Southwest Journal, November 2019
The state and its largest cities need to know where and in what form pollution is taking place.
Minnesota Women’s Press finds:
Every two years the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports on the state of our air. Read the full 2019 report here.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has several more tools for Minnesotans curious about current air data. Find air quality data, permitted facility air emissions data, air toxics data, and more here.
The Twin Cities Environmental Justice Mapping Tool lets users compare environmental risks across communities based on race and income.
Explore all MPCA’s smaller-scale monitoring projects, including Dr. Monika Vadali’s Assessing Urban Air Quality project, used to gain a better understanding of how air quality varies across the state.